Leica SL2: A Brief Field Review

Leica SL2: A Brief Field Review

Leica were kind enough to grant me the privilege of Beta testing the Leica SL2.  I have been a Beta tester for M and SL firmware for a few years, so I guess they figured I could be trusted.  I had the camera for two weeks during which time I used it extensively in the field. I also made comparison tests to the Leica SL and the Hasselblad X1D.  The review was conducted with a prototype camera and firmware so my observations may differ from the production model.

The introduction of the SL was one of those rare moments that produced a true quantum leap in camera design and manufacture.  The SL is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a revolutionary EVF and elegant user interface (UI).  It was a logical next step in the evolution of the discontinued R series of single lens reflex (SLR) cameras.

My uses for the SL mostly are landscape, wildlife and reportage/documentary.  It is also well suited for sports photography (which I do not do), portraiture, travel and general use. 

[Disclaimer.  I have no relationship with Leica other than the NDA that accompanied the loaner camera.  I receive no remuneration in any form from Leica.  This review is kept brief on purpose and is done from a user perspective.  I did not perform any technical tests on the camera.  This review is not exhaustive.  If I did not mention something that interests you, it's either because I did not test it or it does not interest me.  For example, I did not test nor am I interested in video function of the camera. Finally, we (Beta testers) did not receive a manual for the camera so I may have made some assumptions that will be either inaccurate or untrue in the final camera.]

What are the Big Changes?

   47 MP sensor

  Option to use multishot mode to combine 8 captures into one large file

   In body image stabilization (IBIS)

   Option to turn on/off long exposure noise reduction (LENR)

   Simplified, M-like button layout

   Higher resolution EVF with faster refresh rate

   Slightly larger LCD with twice the resolution

   USB charging option

What it Doesn't Have

   GPS - this will be done through FOTOS

Overall Design

The Leica SLR cameras went through several design iterations, including a collaboration with Minolta, until the radical design departure of the R8 and R9 cameras.  The R9, with the digital module, hinted at the future design of its successor, the S2.

The SL2 has retained the basic design of the SL, with some refinements.  The edges have been chamfered smooth.  The surface of the metal elements has a slight texture to it. The rubber covering appears to be the same, or very similar.    

The Details

The leap to 47 MP seems to have happened without any significant loss of image quality, ie, noise.  Final opinion on this will have to wait for analysis by others, such as DXO Mark and Sean Reid, however I printed identical exposures of the identical subject using both the SL and the SL2 to 36 x 54 inches at ISO 3200 and could not discern any significant noise in either image.  The print from the SL2 file was sharper and had more detail in the shadows, but again, I did not quantify this.  The resulting file sizes are in the range of 83 to 86 MB.

It is now possible to use Multishot mode to combine 8 image captures into a single high-resolution file.

Leica did not tell us that the camera has IBIS, but I knew something was up when I tried taking hand held macro photos at 1/30 sec at dusk.  None of my files had any motion blur at 90mm.  These delicate flowers are about 8mm in diameter:

IBIS was later confirmed by Leica, which is a huge improvement that should make many people very happy.  It is now possible to hand hold the camera at slower shutter speeds with multiple lenses, although I did not analyze how many stops this affords.  When in the On position, and using either the 24-90 vario or the 90-280 vario, I do not know if both image stabilization systems work, or just the lens or just the camera.  There is no option to turn off lens stabilization in the menu, only an On/Off function for "Image Stabilization."  IBIS functions with the other SL, M and R lenses.  I did not test other brands.

I compared images made in dim light with and without LENR, however I had the camera around the time of a full moon so I could not get a star-filled sky.  The low noise made this camera very good for astrophotography.

I tested the autofocus and continuous modes with a unicorn pulling two fairies and two children (true story, see photo).  

There are now 4 choices for continuous mode: low, medium, high and very high speed.  Very high speed uses the electronic shutter. In the fast mode I did not run out the buffer and was able to spend several minutes churning through bursts of 5 to 7 shots for a total of about 200 shots without buffering or heating.  Full Disclosure, I normally make photos like a sniper - a single, well-considered shot - so motor-drive has not been my thing for a while.  But this system will not allow much to be missed during fast action. 

The new menu is a huge improvement, in my opinion.  I use the M camera a lot so I sometimes forgot the functions I had assigned to all the SL function buttons.  It usually took a while to review which button did what.  The first time you press the menu button on the SL2 a dashboard (as Jono calls it) appears with most of the functions that you probably will use most of the time.  A second press of the button brings you to the Favorites menu, which you design entirely.  A third press will bring you to 6 menu sheets with all possible options.  There are now 6 definable User functions.  The overall flow of the menu system is more intuitive than the SL, which was very good to begin with.  It didn't take more than a few minutes to feel very comfortable with it and know where absolutely everything was.

It has an APS-C mode, but the files are the same size (~83-86 MP) as the full frame files, so it appears that the camera retains all the information it captures, but presents you with a cropped view.  One drawback to the higher pixel count is that the file sizes are huge, and for everyday photos that never will be enlarged to giant sizes the large files are impractical.  But that's where the beauty of the APS-C comes in, if the file sizes can be proportionately small.  If the APS-C files can be commensurate with their dimensions then the SL2 would be a great general use camera with a Vario-T 18-56mm lens.

Autofocus seemed to be snappier with the SL2, but again, caveat, I did not quantify this.  AF in all modes was plenty fast with minimal searching.  However, the SL2 now has Autofocus Profiles for such subjects as children/pets, wildlife, sports, etc.  The user is able to fine-tune the settings to respond differently to 3 behaviors -  Depth Sensitivity, Field Movement and Shift in Direction - by assigning a value from -2 to +2.  Jono discusses this in detail and I recommend reading his review.

Sky, a Captive Bald Eagle at the Peregrine Fund Center in Idaho

The face-recognition works well with people, horses and dogs.  I did not test with any other animals other than Sky, the female Bald Eagle at the Peregrine Fund World Center for Birds of Prey near my home.  She didn't move much, but for fast moving dogs and ponies the tracking feature kept greater than 95% of my images sharp.

Eye of Sky, Peregrin Center, Idaho

The grip has a different cross-section and now has a recessed area for your fingertips to increase grasp, decrease fatigue and provide better comfort.  Overall ergonomics are improved compared to the SL.

Other than the improved grip, the overall feel, weight, dimensions, ergonomics and aesthetics are very similar to its predecessor.  Missing is the GPS module on the top plate (now through FOTOS) and the recessed strap lugs, which now protrude.

The baseplate has changed only slightly, but just enough that I cannot use my Really Right Stuff baseplate without modifying it.  

Un-Scientific Conclusions

I honestly did not want to like this camera, because I have felt very happy with what I have, without "gear acquisition syndrome" for several years.  However, this might be the perfect camera - for me, for most situations.  For travel, landscape, wildlife and general picture making it is difficult to imagine a more perfect camera.

Leica took an extraordinary camera and made it much better.  The SL2 has significant improvements under the hood of an exterior that is refined but not significantly changed from the original model.   All that is needed is a long lens, although with the APS-C mode the 90-280 is extended to 420mm and the ISO performance will easily allow excellent images at least up to 6400.  The higher resolution will please landscape and commercial photographers.

IBIS, 47MP and LENR are welcome additions to the SL2.  As we find out more about processor speed, dynamic range, and other technical details I am sure the camera will impress even more.  

For more erudite reviews I recommend you read both Jono Slack's review and Sean Reid's review.